Trump's Iran czar: Talks with Tehran inevitable whoever is president

Sanctions will remain even under US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, according to Elliott Abrams.

“It does not really matter who is president on January 20 in the sense that there was going to be a negotiation with Iran anyway,” Elliott Abrams, the US special representative for Iran and Venezuela, said on Monday at a closed press briefing.

Elaborating on journalists’ questions about what would happen if US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration is running Iran policy in January, he said negotiation is “the intent of the [US President Donald] Trump administration. That is not a source of disagreement.”

“Whether it is possible to go back to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran deal] remains to be seen,” Abrams said. “It’s five years old. The first sunset has already taken place in the eyes of many countries in the world – the [expiration of the] arms embargo, which we have been trying to avoid through snapback sanctions.”

“More sunsets are built in at the eight- and 10-year levels,” he said. “Iran is not in compliance with the JCPOA. In the last two years especially, a significant sanctions program has been implemented, which includes not only nuclear sanctions, but also human-rights sanctions and counterterror sanctions.”

A Biden administration would still use the Trump administration sanctions in any negotiation with Iran to get new concessions, and removing them would not be easy, Abrams said.
“Legally, it is correct that a president has the right to reverse any executive act that he took or that a previous president took,” he said. “Whether it is advisable and politically possible is a different question.”

“Some of the sanctions are not connected to the JCPOA or Iran’s nuclear activities… Human-rights sanctions and counterterror sanctions… in theory, they can be reversed,” he added. “But it is hard to see how any president would really do that without a change in Iran’s behavior.”

Rejoining the JCPOA unless Tehran makes significant concessions is different than the likelihood a future Biden administration will rejoin the World Health Organization on day one, Abrams said.

“If you want to go back to the WHO, you just say, ‘I want to go back to the WHO,’” he said. “It is extremely unlikely the WHO would say, ‘We have conditions, and you owe us money.’ I don’t think going back to the JCPOA in 2021 is a simple prospect.”

The discussion next turned to what concessions Abrams thought a Biden administration might be able to get from Tehran, given that its top officials’ position has been they will not return into compliance with the JCPOA until the US terminates its sanctions.

“Certainly the ballistic-missile program, even in the short run, even to Europeans and Israel and other friends and partners of the US… The sunsets were obviously much, much too short… change comes slowly,” he said.

“One of the main criticisms of the agreement, in the view of most critics perhaps the single greatest failure,” was allowing the Islamic Republic to continue to enrich uranium even at low levels, he added.

Pressed that officials in US president Barack Obama’s administration had said they would never have gotten a deal and would have lost the support of Russia and China if they had held out for a no-enriching uranium condition, Abrams said: “No one wants Iran to get a nuclear weapon. I don’t think Russia and China want them to get a nuclear weapon.”

“There were many European negotiators who thought the negotiations went poorly,” he said. “That this was the absolute end? That is not what I heard from some Europeans who believed a better agreement was possible.”

Despite the Trump administration not succeeding in getting Tehran to agree to new concessions, Abrams said the Iranians desperately need to cut a post-election deal with whomever is president, with the implication that it would be in 2021.

He said he was optimistic that Iran would bend to pressure if a future Biden administration held the line.

“If the pressure the US has because of the success of the sanctions campaign is utilized, the Iranians are in a situation in which they really need these sanctions lifted,” he said. “If we demand changes in their conduct… the Iranians will have no choice. They will have to make significant changes in their behavior.”

REGARDING HOW a Biden administration might approach any potential future scenario in which Israel might feel the need to strike Iran’s nuclear program preemptively, Abrams said: “Five presidents of the US have said they will not permit Iran to get a nuclear weapon. That is also Israel’s position… There are no traffic lights… The US believes Israel will act responsibly to protect its national security.”

Pressed if he was sure a Biden administration would have the same approach or would try to pressure Israel not to strike, he declined to answer.

Abrams was asked how far off he believed Iran was from a nuclear weapon. He declined to answer, saying it was classified information. Different countries have somewhat different estimates, he added.

Asked why even allied countries such as the US and Israel might have different estimates, Abrams said it related to what question they were focusing on whether it was how long it would take Iran to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear bomb, how long it would take them to have a bomb and test it, or all the way to end of when they would have a “usable and deliverable nuclear weapon.”

In terms of what to expect in the final two months of the Trump administration, while qualifying that the states in the US have not yet certified the results, he said: “With respect to Iran, we have a maximum-sanctions program. In September and October, you saw [new] sanctions put in place. This will continue in November and will continue in December, because it is unrelated to politics and elections. It is the foreign policy of the US, and it is based on Iran’s conduct.”

“When we sanction the Iranian ambassador to Iraq under counterterror authorities, it is because he is a Quds Force guy,” he said. “It is not about politics… that maximum pressure will continue… we have one president at a time.”

Regarding discussions with top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abrams flagged many themes that were addressed, including the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Asked if he thought the IAEA was useful and better than in the past, he said: “Yes, I don’t hear complaints about IAEA activities. There are complaints about Iran’s actions to delay access, to deny access.”

Questioned about whether the IAEA has visited Iran’s newly announced construction site for a nuclear underground facility at Natanz, he said he was not sure and that the coronavirus has slowed travel in general.

Abrams is visiting Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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